While not all-encompassing, this blog and webinar series serves as a starting point and provides some clarity regarding how our call for a better food & farm system is deeply intertwined with ongoing calls for racial justice. As a majority white-led organization, this is just one way we are using our power and platform to fight back against white supremacy, exploitation, and erasure in our food system. We will continue to fight for our vision for a more racially-just food system in collaboration with our Black, Indigenous, Latinx and allies of color who have been at the forefront of this fight forever.

For more original content and all things food and water, sign up to receive CCI’s Food, Farm & Water Dispatch for monthly content straight to your inbox.


Confronting Racism & White Supremacy in our Food & Farm System

A 3-part Blog Series


As we reflect as a nation on the systemic racism in our institutions, we must also recognize and confront racism in every aspect of U.S. policy, including the agricultural policies that underpin our food and farm systems. Our modern industrial food and agricultural systems are built on a foundation of colonization, genocide, slavery and other forms of exploitation, oppression, and erasure, because industrial agriculture is built on white supremacy.

We know we need to overhaul our food system, and a key part of this overhaul is to recognize, reject and uproot the racism in our food and farm system and work towards the collective liberation of all people, by eradicating the structures that harm Black, Indigenous, Latinx and people of color most. 

This 3-part blog series looks at the role of racism in our food system — past and present — and why we must dismantle it in order to build the food and farm system we need and deserve.

Part 1: Rooted in Racism — The Unspoken History of our Food & Farm System

Part 2: How Industrial Agriculture Reinforced Oppressive Systems

Part 3: Moving Forward Together in the Call for Justice


The Food & Farm System We Need & Deserve

A 4-part Webinar Series


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the huge cracks in our highly consolidated industrial food system, proving it’s far less resilient than the diversified, regional operations it replaced. 

Now more than ever, it’s time to transition to a food and agricultural system that works for everyone – for farmers, workers, eaters and the land. Our food and farm system belongs in the hands of a more diverse base of farmers and workers, not under the control of a small handful of giant corporations.

This 4-part webinar series dug in on these topics and allowed us to learn alongside our allies across the Midwest region who are fighting alongside us for a better, more equitable food and farm system.

Episode 1: “Creating a Better Food & Farm System for Workers”

Click here to view recording for Episode 1.

Featuring:

Axel Fuentes — Board Member, Food Chain Workers Alliance; Executive Director, Rural Community Workers Alliance (RCWA)

Axel and RCWA are at the center of an ongoing lawsuit on behalf of workers against a Smithfield packing plant for poor working conditions during the COVID-19 crisis. They are members of the Food Chain Workers Alliance – a coalition of worker-based organizations whose members are organizing to improve wages and working conditions for all works along the food chain.

Navina Khanna — Director of HEAL Food Alliance

HEAL’s mission is to build our collective power to create food and farm systems that are healthy for our families, accessible and affordable for all communities, and fair to the hard-working people who grow, distribute, prepare, and serve our food — while protecting the air, water, and land we all depend on.

Episode 2: “Creating a Better Food & Farm System for the Environment”

Click here to view recording for Episode 2.

Featuring:

Shona Snater — Bridge to Soil Heath Organizer, Land Stewardship Project (LSP)

The Bridge to Soil Health Project works with crop and livestock farmers and other professionals that view soil as a long-term investment. LSP acts as a bridge between emerging soil health information and local farming practices, thereby uniting a community of farmers as the Soil Builders’ Network.


Episode 3: “Creating a Better Food & Farm System for Eaters”

Click here to view recording for Episode 3.

Featuring:

Claire Kelloway — Reporter and Researcher, Open Markets Institute

Claire is the primary writer for Food & Power, a first-of-its-kind website, providing original reporting and resources on monopoly power and economic concentration in the food system. Her writing on food and agriculture has appeared in ProPublica, Civil Eats, Pacific Standard Magazine, and more.


Episode 4: “Creating a Better Food & Farm System for Farmers”

Click here to view recording for Episode 4.

Featuring:

Tim Gibbons — Missouri Rural Crisis Center (MRCC)

Every day MRCC fights to preserve family farms and independent family farm livestock production, promote stewardship of the land and a safe, affordable high-quality food supply, support social justice and economic opportunity, and engage rural Missourians in public policies that impact their farms, food, families and communities.

Disclaimer: This 3-part web series only scratches the surface on how racism and white supremacy is embedded in every aspect of our current food and farm system. While not all-encompassing, this blog and webinar series serves as a starting point and provides some clarity regarding how our call for a better food & farm system is deeply intertwined with ongoing calls for racial justice. As a majority white-led organization, this is just one way we are using our power and platform to fight back against white supremacy, exploitation, and erasure in our food system. We will continue to fight for our vision for a more racially-just food system in collaboration with our Black, Indigenous, Latinx and allies of color who have been at the forefront of this fight forever.

This post was written by Keisha Perkins and Abigail Landhuis

Introduction

Our modern industrial food and agricultural systems are built on a foundation of colonization, genocide, slavery and other forms of exploitation, oppression, and erasure, all of which were justified by white supremacy and myths and narratives like Manifest Destiny and the story that “Iowa feeds the world”. U.S. policy supporting industrialization and consolidation in farming and food production has served to perpetuate racial and ethnic inequalities across the nation, including right here in Iowa. 

Iowa’s landscape

What is now the state of Iowa is a particularly poignant example of the connections between genocide, forced removal, and agriculture. The rich and fertile soil that lies between the Mississippi and Missouri rivers made Iowa the perfect target during westward expansion. After colonists arrived, they were aided by the Homestead Act and other racist policies to redistribute the land they stole from the Sioux, Ioway, Sauk, and Meskwaki nations to largely white settlers. The settlers swapped  traditional farming knowledge and land stewardship practices for exploitative practices to help create the highly consolidated, industrial food and farm system we have today.

Concentration of land, consolidation of meat packing companies, and staggeringly low crop prices created the perfect storm which resulted in the creation of factory farms. Also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, factory farms are a form of intensive agriculture designed to maximize production while minimizing cost. After the farm crisis in the 1980s, factory farms began sprouting up across the nation and they were increasingly built in places situated on rich and fertile soil — like here in Iowa. Today, 70.4% of cows, 98.3% of pigs, 99.8 percent of turkeys, 98.2% of chickens raised for eggs, and 99.9% of chickens raised for meat are raised in factory farms. 

Iowa is now home to over 10,000 factory farms and is the number one producer of corn and soybeans. The land in Iowa is the most altered in the nation. 93% of our state has been changed to support the agriculture industry — all because Iowa is stuck in a false moral imperative about feeding the world.  The enormous build-up of manure and other untreated waste created by factory farms is often stored and disposed of in ways that pose many risks to the environment and human health. Even the American Public Health Association recognizes the detrimental effects that these concentrated animal feeding operations have on the health and well-being of our communities, and is calling for a nationwide moratorium on any new and expanding operations. 

Pollution & Environmental Racism 

The 10,000 factory farms in Iowa create over 22 billion gallons of toxic liquid manure that is dumped untreated onto farm fields across the state. As a result, Iowa has some of the most polluted water in the country, with over 760 impaired waterways, tens of thousands of contaminated wells, and Iowa factory farms contribute almost 50% of the nutrients causing the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Though there is little research specific to Iowa, it is also a well-documented fact that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by polluting industries, like the factory farm industry, and their lax regulation by local, state, and federal governments. This is known as environmental racism. 

Environmental racism may be harder to see than the racism that exists within other aspects of our institutions, like our criminal justice system, but the effects of it are much more deadly. Just one example of this was the environmental disaster in Flint, Michigan. Due to local officials not treating drinking water, thousands of homes, in a predominantly Black city, were exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water. 

In 2019, 235 Black people were killed by police and over 13,000 Black people died due to air pollution alone. Recent studies have shown that people who live in predominantly Black communities suffer greater premature death from pollution than those in predominantly white communities.

Time and time again, throughout our nation’s history, it’s been proven that racism exists in many aspects of our society that we often don’t think about. Even when it isn’t fully documented, like the lack of research on Iowa farm- and environment-related impacts on our communities of color, the impacts of systemic racism aren’t any less valid. This lack of research further demonstrates the barriers we face when attempting to confront racism and white supremacy, as many local and federal policies are reliant upon current research. 

Although we live in a society that places more value on facts and figures than on the stories of everyday people, we know we don’t need numbers to know the truth. We need look no further than the fact that the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers, two of the most polluted rivers in our state, are situated in a county that has one of the largest populations of Black and Latinx people. 

We must acknowledge the direct link between environmental racism and the economic, environmental, and health outcomes of people of color in Iowa if we are ever going to truly understand the devastating impacts that our current agriculture system has on our communities.

Moving Forward for a More Just Food & Farm system 

Throughout history, promises were broken and reparations were cut short or canceled altogether.  After the Civil War, Black farmers were promised land that many did not receive, and we continue to see that injustice in modern day policies, which prop up racism and white supremacy by intentionally leaving out Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color. 

The factory farm industry has overrun Iowa and receives hundreds of millions of public dollars every year. Meanwhile, farmers of color, who are more likely to have smaller farms and grow higher-value, labor-intensive products, receive little to no support.

These bad policies and actions by elected officials and Big Ag show us there is a lack of political will to take action on systemic racism, leaving people of color to continue to be driven out of farming. If we ignore that our highly industrialized food and farm system was built on these systemic injustices, we will never be able to build a just and sustainable food and farm system. 

But before we can move on together to fight for a more just food & farm system, we must acknowledge the deficiencies of white-led organizations and use our power, voice, and platforms to fight back against the bedrock of white supremacy, exploitation, and erasure in our food system. Just as the Black Panthers created food programs, just as the Southern Tenant Farmers Union fought for the land rights of Black people, and just as the “Freedom Farmers” united against racism, we must listen, elevate, and advocate for the solutions put forward by communities of color who are directly impacted by these issues. HEAL Food Alliance and the National Black Food & Justice Alliance are organizations led by Black, Indigenous and other people of color, allied with numerous groups from across the country, leading the way to dismantle racism and white supremacy while standing up for worker rights, sustainable farming, food sovereignty, and land liberation. 

Conclusion

At Iowa CCI, we fight for a food and farm system that works for family farmers, workers, eaters, and the environment. That includes confronting the reality that the United States — including Iowa — was built on stolen land and labor, and the exploitation, oppression, and erase of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities of color. 

To overcome the horrific legacy of racism in our country, we all must reflect on our own privileges and prejudices, and rethink our institutions. Most importantly we must organize for structural changes that shift power away from corporate agriculture and toward a multi-racial movement of everyday people — because there is no food justice without racial justice, and silence is compliance.

Want to learn more? For more original content and all things food and water, sign up to receive CCI’s Food, Farm & Water Dispatch for monthly content straight to your inbox

Want to support this work? The work we do at Iowa CCI is member-funded and member-led. Join now

Want to read more? Revisit parts 1 & 2 of this series here.

Disclaimer: This 3-part web series only scratches the surface on how racism and white supremacy is embedded in every aspect of our current food and farm system. While not all-encompassing, this blog and webinar series serves as a starting point and provides some clarity regarding how our call for a better food & farm system is deeply intertwined with ongoing calls for racial justice. As a majority white-led organization, this is just one way we are using our power and platform to fight back against white supremacy, exploitation, and erasure in our food system. We will continue to fight for our vision for a more racially-just food system in collaboration with our Black, Indigenous, Latinx and allies of color who have been at the forefront of this fight forever.

This post was written by Keisha Perkins and Abigail Landhuis.

Missed Part 1 of the series? Check it out here.

Introduction

Our modern food and farm system changed dramatically with the industrialization of the mid-20th century, but its reliance on the exploitation of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color remained. 

Colonialism took on a different form with the rise of globalization —spreading U.S. influence and power internationally. Market forces shaped who did and did not have power, and agriculture played a central role in escalating and maintaining the dominance the U.S. had built on years of stolen land and labor. 

The policies that shifted the balance of power in our food and farm system disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other farmers and workers of color and continued to exploit them for their knowledge, labor, and land.

“Get big or get out”

The 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act resulted in a three-pronged supply management strategy for farms. Price floors were created for certain crops, the federal government was able to purchase excess grains to stabilize the price of crops, and farmers were paid to set aside land for conservation. Together, these programs ensured farmers were given a living wage for their goods, while preventing overproduction and environmental harm.  In short, these programs supported a food system controlled by many independent family farmers.

These policies began to be rolled back before the 1970s, but it was President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, that led the charge for completely dismantling the parity agriculture system in favor of one that prioritized profit over everything else.

 Butz told farmers to “get big or get out” thus creating the concept of Big Ag. He prioritized increasing production and decreasing commodity prices over all else, including farmers’ livelihoods, the success of rural communities, and the health and safety of consumers and the environment. He got rid of supply management policies that had stabilized food prices, while encouraging farmers to plant fence row to fence row, relying on export markets to get rid of surplus. 

He was aided by the story that US farmers “feed the world” — a narrative that made it easier to sacrifice the health of the land, kick indigenous and traditional farming practices to the margins, and ramp up production to never-before-seen levels. 

At the same time this was happening, the U.S. eased up on the oversight of mergers and acquisitions in all industries. This set off a domino effect, allowing numerous waves of consolidation in the food and agricultural sectors, and it virtually eliminated small and independent companies. This decision resulted in collapsing commodity prices and a massive transfer of wealth and power to Big Ag, exploiting family farmers, workers, consumers, and the environment.

Effect on family farmers

This push to “get big or get out” resulted in farmers having to take on more and more debt to buy land, bigger equipment, more fertilizers and pesticide.  They also had to produce  as much as they could, as fast as they could, for as cheap as possible. In addition to this, farmers were forced into exploitative contracts with large agriculture corporations, which resulted in corporations controlling the animals and the profits while family farmers bore the cost of production.

By calling on farmers to “feed the world,” Butz was able to eliminate any price supports, driving crop prices down. By the 1980s, due to the lack of supply management policies, farms were producing way more than the market could handle. Prices fell drastically and interest rates on the loans farmers had taken out in order to “get big” were devastating. Farmers buckled under the weight of the debt they’d taken on to expand their farms and tens of thousands of family farms were lost, hollowing out communities and leading to the increased consolidation of land in the hands of a few. As a result, between 2012 and 2017, 67,000 farmers went out of business. Now just over 5% of farms account for 75% in sales.

Disproportionate impacts on Black farmers

Corporate consolidation and the shift of power to Big Ag combined with a history of colonization and exploitation — rooted in racism and white supremacy — resulted in an immense loss of land and livelihood for Black families specifically. In 1920, Black farmers represented 14% of all U.S. farmers and owned a total of 15 million acres of land. Today, less than 1 percent of the nation’s farmers are Black, and they own and operate less than 2 percent of the farmland they did in 1920. 

This loss of land came about for numerous reasons, but the leading cause of involuntary land loss among Black families is due to exploitation of heirs property — property that was passed down to multiple family members without having documentation, like a will. The racism embedded in the U.S. court systems resulted in a lack of trust — so much that, even today, 76% of Black people do not have wills— making it very difficult to prove ownership of land. Combining that with other loopholes, Black families often had to watch as their land was auctioned on courthouse steps or forced into a sale against their will, stripping families of the land they’d accumulated.

The drastic decrease in the number of Black farmers and farmland was also instigated by racial discrimination within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the loan officers responsible for deciding which farmers get support from USDA loan programs. These loan officers often approved only a fraction of Black farmers’ loan requests and most often denied farm equipment loans or disaster relief to Black farmers. This began a ripple effect that resulted in over 100,000 Black farmers joining together for a class action lawsuit against the USDA for the part they played in ensuring Black families wouldn’t make a successful living through farming.

Conclusion

The narratives of “get big or get out” and “we feed the world” pushed by Big Ag continued to reinforce the exploitative and oppressive systems embedded in our food and farm system. No matter how you look at it, whether it’s the dairy, hog, beef, or poultry industry, the trend is the same: the industrialization and monopolization of agriculture by a few massive corporations. Agribusiness corporations like Farm Bureau, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, DowDuPont, Smithfield, and Tyson Foods have exploited communities and displaced thousands upon thousands of family farmers, especially Black farmers. In the next installment of this series, we’ll look at the role and impact of this racist, oppressive system specifically in Iowa. Read Part 3 to learn more.

Want to learn more? For more original content and all things food and water, sign up to receive CCI’s Food, Farm & Water Dispatch for monthly content straight to your inbox

Want to support this work? The work we do at Iowa CCI is member-funded and member-led. Join now

For more content like this sign up here to receive ‘The Dispatch” a monthly publication on all things food and water related from Iowa CCI.

Corporate agribusiness entities have created a false moral imperative about feeding the world. We see it perpetuated by people like former American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman who said: “Many farmers feel strongly that it’s the duty of the less than 1% of the U.S. population still directly involved in farming to help feed the masses.”

Here are three reasons why Iowa doesn’t and shouldn’t aim to feed the world:

1. Farmers aren’t incentivized to grow food. People don’t eat soybeans and corn; corporate-owned pigs at factory farms do. Agribusiness interests incentivize the overproduction of these commodity crops to create cheap feed for corporate controlled factory farms, all while degrading our natural resources and hurting farmers who are forced to farm fence-row to fence-row to try to scrape by. Farmers receive prices lower than the cost of production, while all the profits go straight to the top.

2. This false narrative is rooted in racism and the patriarchy. The corporate-conservative agenda that puts profits before everything is deeply tied to the oppression of people based on the color of their skin, where they come from, and their gender.

Our corporate-controlled agriculture system is no exception and is dependent on the division of everyday people based on perceived differences. At the root of this false narrative is the concept that white male farmers know best how to feed people all across the globe. And these seeds grow the kind of barriers that have kept Black farmers from landownership since Emancipation.

3. Our highly industrial agriculture system is far less resilient than the smaller, regional and diversified family farm operations it replaced. Because of the rampant consolidation over the last 40 years, if one piece of the system is removed the whole thing crumbles. There is no flexibility. As a result during the COVID-19 pandemic, we see cars line up for miles outside of food banks across the country while farmers are forced to kill livestock, dump milk and waste food. Instead of corporations monopolizing a global market and having CEOs dictate how food should be grown “for the world”, we need to stop and re-evaluate how we do better. That starts with a moratorium on factory farms.

It’s safe to say that the make up of our industrial agriculture system is not to feed the world but at the root is created by decades of bad policy driven by corporate greed.

For more content like this sign up here to receive ‘The Dispatch” a monthly publication on all things food and water related from Iowa CCI.